April 30, 2010

The Truth About this Post...

...is that I am not particularly motivated to make it. Why, inquiring minds, might like to know? Why am I not jumping at the opportunity to write about canoe-hopping and lemur-chasing?? Well, you see there is this place right next door that sells THB and there is this American who is keen to go there and speak English while drinking said beverage...One develops certain priorities.
I spent some time debating whether or not to bother with the post below. I had intended to put it up about a month ago and, in the elapsed time since that unworthy-of-description-technical-mishap, much of the information there within has become irrelevant. For the enterprising folks who scrolled down to read it- and lucky you, because you got a keg joke- you will likely guess that all did not in fact proceed according to plan.
But, not one to dwell upon setbacks, particularly when there is cold beer a-calling, I will keep this update short and simple, promising to do a more thorough (read: moderately entertaining) job when I return to the world of internet soon. So, I must report that the splitting-time plan described below fell through, disappointingly, but not surprisingly. Here, “plans” in their abstract form should at all times be accompanied by an asterisk: subject to change.
It would be unfair to record only the exciting and exotic moments of my life here in Madagascar, not giving any space to those that are discouraging. But they happen, just like anywhere else in the world, and the lemurs only rarely hop out of trees to give you a hug (nor do they dance around to cheer you up, contrary to popular belief). What can you do? I personally choose to go the route of binge-eating instant mashed potatoes, but like I said, that is a personal choice.
For now, I remain very much in the information-collection, meet-and-greet, please-learn-to-speak-our-language phase. This entails many things: bike-riding, yard-sitting, canoe-floating, mud-wading, awkward-talking, tree-counting, village-strolling, lemur-chasing, and, always, smiling-smiling-smiling. They tell us in the Peace Corps that one must listen a long time before it is one's turn to speak. If you have two years, there is no need to rush.
That's the logic anyway. Next time I get the question- and it's fair, I wholeheartedly admit- “So, ummmmm, what do you actually do?” I will throw enough hyphens at them to blow their mind.

New Mailing Address:

Katie Browne, PCV
Madagascar National Parks

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

[Intended to be posted April 3rd, 2010]


The days continue to pass in their slow, lanquid way; my hair continues to grow, at long last into my peripheral vision; children continue to pour through my door at all hours, never failing to remind me that body odor is, most definitely, the newest wave of cross cultural communication; and, slowly, steadily, almost imperceptibly, I continue to grow more at ease in a village and a mode of existence quite unlike any I have ever known.

It certainly takes some adjusting to: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Peace Corps life in Madagascar. The Good? "Dude, let's fry up some bananas!" is to this island what "dude, lets get a keg!" was to college. The Bad? Having to suppress the urge to punch in the face the next person who [insert appropriate grievance here]: barges into the house without knocking, asks if they can have an article of clothing currently being worn, grossly overcharges at the market, rushes up and declares "I can count in English...listen…une deux trois." (Jokingly, we refer to these occasional and largely uncharacteristic upcroppings of aggression as 'War Corps'). And the Ugly? The disturbing discovery that the wholesale cramming of twenty-six full grown human beings into a taxi-brousse is simply a matter of willpower; this being a literal application of the term at hand, 'adjustment.'

But I hesitate to give the impression that my life here is an equal expression of all three. Rather, it is skewed heavily towards the good, with a sprinkling here and there of the bad, and (because, after all, me being me, the forced participant in awkward and uncanny events of unlikeliest frequency) there is a healthy dose of the ugly.

And while I continue to have plenty of time to pursue my various musings (this month's most popular: how could a language simply ignore altogether the verb 'to be?' Maybe, like the discovery of the zero as placeholder, they just missed the revolution…), I have actually begun working in earnest, largely towards determining what exactly I am doing here. Oh yes, now you expect me to tell you...probably keen on a mission statement of sorts, eh? Americans, sigh. (That's my wise, worldly, new perspective voice I am employing; we receive training in that). The truth is that while my role has in many ways begun to take shape, it would be a tad optimistic to call it clearly defined.

But this much I can tell you: it appears that I will be splitting time between my town of current residence (which is head of the commune and home of the national park's office) and a small village on one of the outer islands, within the confines of the park itself. [I would gladly give you the respective names, but for security reasons, I am not allowed; plus, you would likely just oggle at the sheer number of vowels]. My two weeks a month at the commune head will be committed largely to sensibilization activities in the surrounding communities- things like improved gardening techniques, composting, efficient cookstoves- as well as work in the park on various ongoing terrestrial and mangrove reforestation projects. For the other two weeks, in the smaller, outer village, I will be free to pursue projects of my own choosing.

Needless to say, I am pretty enthused about this plan, though it remains very much in its infantile stages. I will not even get out to the island until the end of April to lay the groundwork and find some sort of residence ("Hey, looky there, that flat spot would be just perfect for this here tent of mine!!"). Furthermore, there are some unusual logistical challenges, such as determining just how much dramamine I will need to consume to survive the trip via glorified dug-out canoe.

Nevertheless, I would describe myself as "cautiously optimistic" that all will go according to plan. Except, of course, when I look at the words "according to plan" I remember that I am supposed to be living in the desert right now, eating millet, and praying for rain. So, instead, I'll just say hopeful and leave it at that.

April 02, 2010

An Ellipsis Can Leave Alot Unsaid...

"Monday is a holiday."
"Really, for what?"
"For the Ancestors."
"Cool, what happens?"
"Speeches, the kids sing, stuff like that..."

The Fety Razana (Celebration of the Ancestors) began innocently enough: it was hot; speeches were made; the flag was raised and children sang; someone handed me a bunch of flowers and someone else kindly pointed to the spot where I should place them. It was all over before noon. I awarded myself some community interaction brownie points and headed home for an afternoon of quietly contemplating the deeper questions in life.

But no sooner had I arrived, when my counterpart appeared, utterly perplexed as to why I thought the ancestors worthy of a mere half-day's celebration. "Alo atsika." ("Come on, we're going"). As usual, this is news to me, but I have long since ceased inquiries as to our destination, approximate length of journey, or whether I should bring a three day's supply food, water, and mosquito repellent. We could be going around the block or to Siberia; your guess is as good as mine (though, to be fair, if it was Siberia, she would likely point at my bike and you say "you'll be needing that").

So we headed out of town- away from the river, away from the ocean- on a narrow path through the hills. It appeared many of the esteemed members of the community had joined our little jaunt: yes, there's the mayor sweating through his shirt, and there's the president of the commune, nearly falling off that single log excuse for a bridge. Both of these facts arouse considerable mirth and, in the atmosphere of high spirits, I begin to think maybe this is just bonding, an ancestor-appreciation hike if you will.

For two important reasons, I never should have entertained the notion. First of all, Malagasy do not 'hike;' it is not that the word doesn't exist, the entire concept, culturally speaking, doesn't exist. Exempting the village stroll, one can generally say that a person away from home is headed somewhere definite, though not necessarily in a timely manner. Which brings me to my second point: it is now midday and it is hot- I mean Charleston in August hot. Our little jaunt was in direct violation of the sacred provision of the Malagasy lifestyle that during the hours of such heat, say from eleven to four each day, no one be required or expected to move more than three feet in any direction. And here we were, traipsing through the woods at high noon like Robinhood Men in Tights. No doubt, something was up.

So, I should hardly have been surprised when we came into a clearing and were met with the silence of hundreds of expectant eyes. When I say silence, I mean dead silence, the kind of silence where, had I been in the States, I would have done that awkward leg motion that implies one can only hear crickets. Not shockingly though, a fair number of the silent eyes had already found there way to the tall, white girl with Jimmy Neutron-hair, so I thought it best not to attract further attention.

Fortunately, we were soon led to a long table, where heaping bowls of rice quickly appeared. Being of the personal opinion that food immeasurably improves any situation, I was cheered by the site, though I have never been much of a fan of eating as a spectator sport. But my fear of a hundred pair of eyes following spoon's journey from plate to mouth went unrealized, for, as we dug in, the solemn air lifted. The clapping and stomping, singing and dancing began and all returned to its usual lively state. Things were proceeding- dare I say- with relative normalcy, until they brought out the bull.

Six grown men, straining on the ropes, one pulling the tail for good measure, guided the none-to-pleased animal past the table and into a stick enclosure, where its legs were bound and it was left rather unceremoniously snorting into the dust. What exactly happened to the poor creature for the next hour or so is almost a mystery to me as it is to you, because, from that moment forward it was surrounded by such a flurry of activity, enshrouded by such a persistent swirl of bright fabrics, I could hardly tell it was there at all.

The music began in earnest: a few drums and a conch shell. While I was trying to decide which Lord of the Flies reference was most applicable, two young men appeared outside the enclosure and approached the bull in halting steps: forward, forward, spin in a circle, repeat. (Which, I might add, about equals the enthusiasm with which I would approach an 800 pound animal restrained by a flimsy rope). The men both wore long, pointy, red hats- the tips of which brushed their calves- and held what can only be described as scabbards. I'm serious, if I was ever to commandeer a vessel, I would first have to walk back up that trail and ask to borrow one as my weapon on choice.

After completing the rather arduous process of actually arriving at the bull, a roar went up from the assembled persons and the ruckus reached a fever pitch. Dragged out, its head pulled back, the animal didn't even blink as its throat was slit. Having proudly survived the stomach-turning celebration of Tabaski in Niger (it would not be a gross exaggeration to say the streets ran red with blood), I was relatively prepared, though amazed to see the legs of the beheaded carcass still kicking ten minutes later.

With the bull dead, the party was clearly over. We made our way back home, the words "kids singing, stuff like that..." echoing in my head. Call me Leviticus, but in my book an afternoon of ritual bull slaughter sure beats one of quiet contemplation.